By Charles Matthews

Sunday, May 22, 2011

36. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 780-800

Self-Consciousness: Freedom (F.M. Dostoevsky)

F.M. Dostoevsky: The Perverse Self

Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground (1864) is a kind of "thought experiment": What would it be like to achieve full liberation from belief, to free oneself from any anchors to morality? The result is a welter of self-contradictions, and a perverse kind of delight in self-loathing. The speaker, a forty-year-old former bureaucrat begins by claiming to be "a spiteful man," but "can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite." And the reason he can't explain is that he is mortifying himself. And then he explains that he is lying about being spiteful: 
I did not know how to become anything: neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now, I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything. Yes, a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man, is pre-eminently a limited creature.
Acceptance of limits -- moral, ethical, social, intellectual -- defines character. 

In the absence of limits, an awareness that everything is open to one, consciousness becomes a disease. He becomes aware that "when I am most capable of feeling every refinement of all that is 'good and beautiful,' as they used to say at one time, it would, as though of design, happen to me not only to feel but to do ... ugly things." But struggling against "depravity ... ended by my almost believing (perhaps actually believing) that this was perhaps my normal condition." And the remorse that follows this realization "turned into a sort of shameful accursed sweetness, and at last -- into positive real enjoyment ... from the too intense consciousness of one's own degradation." 

He is tormented even by his own self-love: "I have always considered myself cleverer than any of the people surrounding me, and sometimes, would you believe it, have been positively ashamed of it. At any rate, I have all my life, as it were, turned my eyes away and never could look people straight in the face." In any case, he recognizes that he is not a "normal man," but even that is no consolation: 
if you take ... the antithesis of the normal man, that is, the man of acute consciousness, who has come, of course, not out of the lap of Nature but out of a retort, (this is almost mysticism, gentlemen, but I suspect this, too), this retort-made man is sometimes so nonplussed in the presence of his antithesis that with all his exaggerated consciousness he genuinely thinks of himself as a mouse and not a man.
So perverse is his delight in his own self-abasement that he asserts that he even enjoys a toothache: The moans one delivers when suffering that pain "are not candid moans, they are malignant moans, and the malignancy is the whole point. The enjoyment of the sufferer finds expression in those groans; if he did not feel enjoyment in them he would not moan." It is a "voluptuous pleasure" to disturb others with the moans. He admits to his lack of self-respect: "Can a man of perception respect himself at all? Come, can a man who attempts to find enjoyment in the very feeling of his own degradation possibly have a spark of respect for himself?" 

He values inertia over action: "the direct, legitimate fruit of consciousness is inertia, that is, conscious sitting-with-the-hands-folded." To be active is to be "stupid and limited," because "To begin to act, ... you must first have your mind completely at ease and no trace of doubt left in it. Why, how am I, for example, to set my mind at rest? Where are the primary causes on which I am to build? Where are my foundations? Where am I to get them from?" The only motive to action is to "be carried away by your feelings, blindly, without reflection, without a primary cause, repelling consciousness at least for a time." And as a result of action, eventually "you will begin despising yourself for having knowingly deceived yourself." 

But he can't rest content with being known for his lack of action. "I should have respected myself because I should at least have been capable of being lazy; there would at least have been one quality, as it were, positive in me, in which I could have believed myself." If he had been called a "sluggard," "It would mean that I was positively defined, it would mean that there was something to say about me." 

Above all, he rejects the idea that the enlightened man will always act in his own interests, and "would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else." But "when in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interests?" Evidently, "there must really exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his greatest advantages," for men are "ready to act in opposition to all laws; that is, in opposition to reason, honour, peace, prosperity -- in fact, in opposition to all those excellent and useful things." As for the virtue of civilization, 
The only gain of civilization for mankind is the greater capacity for variety of sensations -- and absolutely nothing more. And through the development of this many-sidedness man may come to finding enjoyment in bloodshed. In fact, this has already happened to him.... In any case civilization has made mankind if not more blood-thirsty, at least more vilely, more loathsomely blood-thirsty. In old days he saw justice in bloodshed and with his conscience at peace exterminated those he thought proper. Now we do think bloodshed abominable and yet we engage in this abomination, and with more energy than ever.
As for scientific advancement, the assumption is that "we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will no longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him." But the end result of this will be boredom, producing a reaction against the scientific utopia. Reactionaries will assert the virtue of free will and destroy the rational paradise: "man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated.... What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice...." 

He sides with Schopenhauer in asserting that the will is dominant, because reason "satisfies only the rational side of man's nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole human life including reason and all the impulses." What is "most precious and most important" to us is "our personality, our individuality." Man is "the ungrateful biped" whose "worst defect is his perpetual moral obliquity ... and consequently lack of good sense; for it has long been accepted that lack of good sense is due to no other cause than moral obliquity." Human beings will do anything to assert their individuality. 

Of course, human beings are creative: 
I agree that man is pre-eminently a creative animal, predestined to strive consciously for an object and to engage in engineering -- that is, incessantly and eternally to make new roads, wherever they may lead.... the destination it leads to is less important than the process of making it.... Man like to make roads and to create, that is a fact beyond dispute. But why has he such a passionate love for destruction and chaos also?
He concludes that it is process itself, and not the attainment of an end, that characterizes human activity. Because of that we reject the fixed and the definite and prefer the fanciful: "I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too." 
I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness. Though I did lay it down at the beginning that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction.... Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand.... While if you stick to consciousness, ... you can at least flog yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you up. Reactionary as it is, corporal punishment is better than nothing.
And then, once again, he asserts that everything he has said is a lie. That's not necessarily a bad thing, however. "I want to try the experiment whether one can, even with oneself, be perfectly open and not take fright at the whole truth." Rousseau tried it, of course, but the underground man is convinced that Heine was right in saying "that a true autobiography is almost an impossibility, and that man is bound to lie about himself. He considers that Rousseau certainly told lies about himself in his confessions, and even intentionally lied, out of vanity." But he sets himself out to write anyway, because "I am bored, and I never have anything to do." 

That, in the end, seems to be the one inescapable restriction on the unfettered self: Boredom. 

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